Mistakes and Solutions; Towards Better Recycling Practices


Given how ubiquitous recycling has become, one would think that correctly disposing of items would be second nature. Maybe we should all be pros at it, yet even as someone who considers herself well-informed on the issue, I don’t always know the answers. At times I have found myself standing in front of a recycling bin, unsure whether the item in my hand can be recycled. In this article, I’m going to share what I recently learned that can help us all do a better job of recycling, both at the Co-op and elsewhere.

Recycling Wishes and Realities

In trying to divert as much waste material as possible from the landfill, it may seem reasonable to err on the side of caution and just throw anything that seems potentially recyclable into a recycling container, in hopes that it actually gets recycled. But it turns out putting an item into the recycling bin that doesn’t belong there does more harm than good. This practice has even gotten a name: ‘wishcycling.’

While single stream recycling – where a variety of recyclable materials are combined in a single bin – is championed as making it simpler for more people to recycle, I suspect that it contributes a lot to wishcycling. We may believe that we’re acting virtuously when we put something into recycling instead of throwing it into the trash. I have certainly been guilty of wishcycling myself – but, cumulatively, what we can end up with are single stream recycling bins that better resemble trash receptacles. The single stream recycling approach that many curbside pick-ups utilize today gives the appearance that all recyclable items should be accepted at the curb, but they are not. What is accepted for recycling varies by waste hauler. The waste hauler who takes your recyclables from home could be a hauler that your municipality has an agreement with, or it may be a company you contract with directly. Regardless, to know what is actually accepted for recycling in your local area – or to know if the items you hope or wish to be recycled actually will be – you have to contact the waste hauler for their specific parameters for recycling.

Not wanting to fall into the wishcycling habit, I recently contacted my recycling company to clarify whether certain items were recyclable. Before giving me the list of acceptable items, the customer service representative assured me that since everything will be hand sorted, I needn’t worry about what I put out to the curb. While I do appreciate that this step is taken by my hauler, I was looking for more specific answers so that I could be sure what I was intending to be recycled was actually being recycled.

Moreover, such assurances about hand sorting from a waste hauler probably encourage the spread of wishcycling. That is particularly concerning knowing that not all hand sorting is implemented equally. A friend who takes her recycling to her local transfer station finds the folks who work there are very inconsistent about whether they bother sorting items into their appropriate recycling bins.

So what, really, is the big problem with wishcycling? Wouldn’t the occasional offending item simply be removed from the recycling stream and be re-routed to the landfill? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.Single Stream RecyclingWishcycling actually undermines the efficacy and efficiency of recycling. Why? Because recycling is a complex process, conducted in massive batches of products that, if contaminated with non-recyclable items, can render the entire batch too compromised to be recycled. A greasy pizza box thrown into a paper recycling bin, for example, would contaminate office paper, rendering it non-recyclable. The resulting oily paper would end up being sent to the landfill. The same thing happens when you wishcycle your disposable coffee cup, which is not recyclable (paper cups are lined with a thin layer of plastic), complete with that leftover coffee.

So, wishcycling actually creates more waste by contamination that results in the need to send items to the landfill that otherwise would not be trashed. But it also wastes time (time spent hand sorting, or fixing sorting machines that have been shut down by an improper item), which of course means money is wasted by wishcycling too.

Contamination of recyclables is a huge problem, not just with items we wish could be recycled but also with items that definitely are recyclable. Even items known to be recyclable have to be in relatively clean condition to actually get recycled. For dry items, shaking the crumbs out of a container suffices. But for wet or sticky items it is recommended you rinse or wipe out the container (and then compost the paper towel or napkin if you’re, say, cleaning your container with a disposable paper item in the Co-op cafe instead of the sponge or rag you might have at home).

So, know what your waste hauler accepts for recycling and give them their “acceptable” items in relatively clean condition to give your items the best shot at being recycled. If that recyclable food container with the remnants of your delicious lunch is not wiped out before being put in the recycling stream, or if you leave peanut butter in the jar before sending it to be recycled, or if there is a bit of hot sauce at the bottom of the bottle that you’ve chucked into the recycling bin, this too prevents recyclable items from being properly recycled.

Plastic Bags Are Recyclable, But Not at the Curbside

From Mother Nature Network

Unfortunately, not all plastics are treated equally in the recycling world. In my area, the two items that have caused me the greatest confusion are plastic bags and plastic film (such as shrink wrap and dry cleaner bags). My recycling facility accepts plastics #1-5, and #7, yet they do not accept plastic bags or film, even when these plastics are labeled with chasing arrows and the #4. What is actually meant by “plastics” in the recycling world is rigid plastic containers, not all plastic. While wishcycling would have me put plastic bags in the recycling bin with the hope that the company would somehow recycle them, if I do that, they are certain to end up in the landfill.

The good news is that, under New York State law, any large grocery store that dispenses disposable plastic bags at the checkout line is required to provide collection bins for all clean and dry plastic bags (with any strings removed) and many types of plastic film. Below is the list of items such stores are required to collect:

  • Plastic grocery bags
  • Plastic retail bags with string ties removed
  • Plastic newspaper bag
  • Plastic dry-cleaning bags
  • Plastic produce bags with ALL food residue removed
  • Plastic bread bags with ALL food residue removed
  • Plastic cereal bags with ALL food residue removed
  • Plastic wrap from paper products (paper towels, toilet paper, etc.)
  • Plastic stretch/shrink wrap with all food residue removed
  • Plastic zipper type bags

A full list of what is required by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) for collection at grocery stores dispensing plastic bags and what items may additionally be collected at some stores can be found here.

So, there is a proper way to recycle plastic bags, which inevitably show up in my house despite my best intentions. I spoke to a representative from my local Hannaford and found them to be knowledgeable on what they did and did not accept in compliance with the law as outlined by the NYSDEC. And, the good news is, these plastic bags do not have to originate at the store where you bring them for recycling.

And, for those who religiously skip the plastic bag option altogether in favor of your own re-usable bags, you might be wondering what to do with your re-usable bags when you realize they’ve seen better days. Those bags can also be recycled, just not locally. Check out this link from Chico bags for how to have your re-usable bags re-purposed or recycled by them, through their “Pay it Forward” program.

Honest Weight is not required by NYSDEC to provide plastic bag recycling because we only provide paper bags to customers for their purchases. However, in its commitment to environmental friendliness, the Co-op encourages shoppers to bring their own re-usable bags or purchase them at the store, and also makes cardboard boxes available to carry home grocery purchases.

Recycling and Waste Reduction at the Co-op

My fellow members of the Co-op’s newly formed Environment Committee began conducting waste audits of the various departments at Honest Weight starting last fall, to see if we can help our store reduce its waste. This is one of several projects the committee is working on; watch for future articles reporting on our progress. If you have any questions about our ongoing work, check out our monthly updates in the form of our reports to the Board, distributed each month at the Co-op’s Board meetings and also available in the Board’s meeting minutes. Feel free to also email us directly with any questions, at: environmentcomm AT honestweight.coop.

Helpful Resources:

A useful online recycling resource is: Earth911.com. http://earth911.com/
The NYS DEC’s Plastic Bag and Film Plastics Recycling for Consumers List.

Erin Walsh has been a member of the Co-op since moving to Albany in 2009. She has worked as a member-owner and staff member in Bulk, and has served on various committees as well as on the Board of Directors. She has a Masters in Sustainable Food Systems and most recently worked at Capital Roots. She is now a member of the Honest Weight Food Co-op's Environment Committee.